On the title cut of his new album, “This Land,” blues rock Grammy winner Gary Clark Jr. paints a picture of America that might surprise many who hear it. Others will find it all too familiar.
It’s a defiant song in which Clark gives free rein to his feelings about where we have come as a nation and how much further we have to go when it comes to racism.
Clark’s video complements the lyrics, juxtaposing images of black children at play, a slithering snake, Confederate flags attached to mailboxes and desecrated under the feet of more black children on a field.
Woody Guthrie is an obvious inspiration, though there are key differences in their focus. Where the Dust Bowl balladeer famously sang “this land is your land,” Clark proclaims, “This is where I come from. This land is mine.”
Asked why, Clark, 35, thinks for nearly half a minute before replying.
“There are two parts to this,” he says. “We used to sing ‘This Land Is Your Land’ in elementary school. We’d put our hands on our hearts and salute that big-ass Texas flag and the American flag. All these little kids had no concept of race or anything like that. But then the day comes when somebody says, ‘Go back to Africa,’ and all these kids that used to play together are calling each other names. Even though we still sang that song, some cat is telling me I’m not from around here.”
He laughs, more bitter than amused. “I got a pearl Cadillac. I loved that car. But cops would pull me over, and I’d get squad cars on me for no reason. I’d be five miles per hour over the speed limit, and they’d pull their guns on me. So I put that into the song.”
Clark has processed those experiences and more into the wide, expressive range of “This Land.” There’s the dark introspection of “I Walk Alone” and “Low Down Rolling Stone,” the regret and repentance of “Don’t Wait Til Tomorrow” and the more ambiguous (romantic or kind of creepy) air of “Feelin’ Like A Million.”
“I’ve spent so much time studying and being alongside great blues musicians who have taught me so much,” Clark says. “I also grew up in a time when people trade music over the Internet, so that whole idea of any one region representing your music went out the window. So I love Tupac. I love Biggie. I love the idea of RZA and Wu-Tang Clan rapping over Albert King licks.”
His struggle to reconcile these elements underlies the vibrancy and immediacy of “This Land” — a struggle made easier by a conversation he had with fellow performer Cody ChesnuTT.
“I told him I was having this battle with people saying I should just play blues because I was a blues guy,” Clark says. “He told me, ‘All those ideas you have in your head aren’t meant for you to keep. They’re meant to be expressed.’
“So I don’t care anymore because I don’t want to be a character. And if the blues police don’t like that, I’m cool with it.”